The do's and don'ts of citizen science

In Citizen Science, citizens actively contribute to academic research. For instance by collecting data, transcribing manuscripts or mapping dialects. Are you considering working with citizens during your research? We have assembled a few tips for you from experts.


Tips from a researcher

Tine De Moor conducts research into the creation, functioning and evolution of institutions for collective action and has a lot of experience with projects in which she collaborated with citizens, for instance Yes, I do.

Willeke Machiels
  1. Don't start a stand-alone platform if you can make use of a well-established existing platform. It costs a lot of energy to build a new platform and the community surrounding it.
  2. Don't start a project without a solid communications plan that clearly describes how, where, when and with whom you will develop your project. Launching a platform is part of this plan as well, and you shouldn't do this before everyting is clear for the participating volunteers. You only get to make a first impression once.
  3. Make sure assignments are uniform and workable, according to a well explained procedure. If you want the volunteers to enter different sources, make it into separate projects.
  4. Show your respect for the volunteers by telling them how valuable their work is for science, and give regular updates about the scientific results of the project.
  5. Recognise the work the work they do by giving back knowledge, and set up instruments for reputation building. Volunteers, like researchers, build up knowledge and like to see that given due recognition. This doesn't have to be in the form of goodies. Also, involve the top-participants, for instance as data checker.
  6. Don't concentrate your attention on the expert and very active volunteers. A big project with many participants, of which a number is less active, works better because it plays into the reputation-effect and it works as a motivator for the active volunteers.
  7. Ensure continuous support of the project, also during holiday periods, so it doesn't stall. Make sure that procedures to check the data are closely followed and do not fall behind, and neither do the reputation instruments (such as getting points after data checks).

Tips from a project manager

Aniek Bax, project manager at the Centre for Science and Culture, has a lot of experience in setting up and executing projects where citizen scientists play a role, for instance Wereldfaam, schimmel op je naam (in Dutch).

Kinderen, oude en onderzoekers bekijken schimmelmonsters in Universiteitsmuseum
  1. Take into account the ages, compositions, education levels and motivations of the citizen scientists you work with. Families or school classes contributing to a project need different information and triggers to become enthusiastic and to want to and be able to participate.
  2. Take the contributions of the volunteers seriously. Citizen science projects can contribute to a positive communication and branding of the research institute involved, but if that is the only object, don't call it citizen science.
  3. Open communication is very important. When you have a broad public contributing to research for instance by supplying soil samples, give insight in how long it takes to examine them and when they can expect feedback on their contribution.
  4. Ideally, you start off with a small pilot to assess how much work the whole process will entail. Map the whole journey from beginning to end, identify the contact moments with the citizen scientists, assess how long procedures will take, when information about for instance samples will become available, and how the project will be concluded with the participants. Citizen science projects take time.
  5. Meetings between researchers and volunteers to exchange insights can be very valuable, provided it suits the intended target audience. It can result in proud volunteers and proud researchers.
  6. Link up to bigger projects, such as theme years, to gain your project attention from possible participants, look for locations where they come, make use of existing networks.
  7. Citizen scientists often contribute to a small part of a bigger research project. Think of ways to give insight in the whole process. Be aware there are different levels of citizen science, and think of ways to level up your project.
  8. Give attention to the financing of your project. These projects ask a lot in terms of effort, communication and costs. If you can, tag onto bigger citizen science projects.

Meer informatie

EOS - iedereen wetenschapper [in Dutch] A citizen science platform

Citizen science. De betrokkenheid van burgers in het wetenschappelijke proces [in Dutch] Report from a Citizen Science symposium by KNAW, 16 June 2016